Lullabies for Little Criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals

4.1 23
by Heather O'Neill

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Heather O'Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets - and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.

At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase


Heather O'Neill dazzles with a first novel of extraordinary prescience and power, a subtly understated yet searingly effective story of a young life on the streets - and the strength, wits, and luck necessary for survival.

At thirteen, Baby vacillates between childhood comforts and adult temptation: still young enough to drag her dolls around in a vinyl suitcase yet old enough to know more than she should about urban cruelties. Motherless, she lives with her father Jules, who takes better care of his heroin habit than he does of his daughter. Baby's gift is a genius for spinning stories and for cherishing the small crumbs of happiness that fall into her lap. But her blossoming beauty has captured the attention of a charismatic and dangerous local pimp who runs an army of sad, slavishly devoted girls - a volatile situation even the normally oblivious Jules cannot ignore. And when an escape disguised as betrayal threatens to crush Baby's spirit, she will ultimately realize the power of salvation rests in her hands alone.

Editorial Reviews

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Baby and Jules. Jules and Baby. They're a father and his 12-year-old daughter whose unconventional lifestyle is rarely more than two steps ahead of Social Services. Left motherless at birth, Baby takes better care of Jules than he does of her, preoccupied as he is with an escalating drug habit. But getting by is all Baby has ever known, moving from apartment to apartment, living in foster homes while Jules does time in rehab, nicking candy bars from the grocery and spinning tales to impress her classmates. Tempted too soon by the privileges and freedom of an adult world, Baby trades in her childish ways, and learns to rely on her genius for survival and her growing beauty. But when she captures the attention of the charismatic Alphonse, his sweet words and string of sad, lost little girls introduce Baby to a life that Jules is powerless to save her from and that test her mettle to survive.

A harrowing tale without a trace of melodrama or self-pity, Lullabies for Little Criminals is filled with the tenderness and pain of adolescence. Baby may remind some readers of Kaye Gibbons's 11-year-old Ellen Foster, and her young voice -- heartbreaking, raw, and direct -- is uniquely resonant and a triumph. O'Neill, a contributor to NPR's This American Life, firmly establishes herself on the page with this debut novel. (Holiday 2006 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
In her debut novel, This American Life contributor O'Neill offers a narrator, Baby, coming of age in Montreal just before her 12th birthday. Her mother is long dead. Her father, Jules, is a junkie who shuttles her from crumbling hotels to rotting apartments, his short-term work or moneymaking schemes always undermined by his rage and paranoia. Baby tries to screen out the bad parts by hanging out at the community center and in other kids' apartments, by focusing on school when she can and by taking mushrooms and the like. (She finds sex mostly painful.) Stints in foster care, family services and juvenile detention ("nostalgia could kill you there") usually end in Jules's return and his increasingly erratic behavior. Baby's intelligence and self-awareness can't protect her from parental and kid-on-kid violence, or from the seductive power of being desired by Alphonse, a charismatic predator, on the one hand, and by Xavier, an idealistic classmate, on the other. When her lives collide, Baby faces choices she is not equipped to make. O'Neill's vivid prose owes a debt to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend; the plot has a staccato feel that's appropriate but that doesn't coalesce. Baby's precocious introspection, however, feels pitch perfect, and the book's final pages are tear-jerkingly effective. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Winsome debut novel about a precocious girl's peripatetic life. From the perspective of 12-year-old narrator Baby, she and her father, Jules, live a glamorous life in Montreal's red-light district. Only 15 years older than Baby, Jules conscripts her in his colorful, often fruitless schemes to make a quick buck. Baby knows that Jules is a heroin addict, but when he is high, his love for her is grandly theatrical, their grinding poverty a colorful adventure. But when Jules begins rehab, Baby enters the foster-care system. Deprived of the excitement that took the sting out of her marginal daily existence, Baby clams up, becoming a faithful, if mostly despondent, observer of the small rituals that hold her new families together. Just as she acclimates herself to new companions, she is uprooted, until finally she lands on the doorstep of her newly sober father. Jules, now grimly vigilant about worldly corruption, winds up driving Baby away. She moves in with a pimp and begins turning tricks to support her own heroin habit. After a few wretched months, she finds Jules again, and they plot a new beginning together. The story is a strange mix of heavy plotting and grotesque characters-as if the cast of an Elmore Leonard novel had wandered into a tale by Dickens-but Baby's voice holds it all together. Baby is the real triumph here; Jules's charm is utterly believable, but Baby's yearning for him, even for his cruelties, aches to the bone. Baby believes she is guided by reason and conviction, but O'Neill shows us that Baby is all emotion and instinct. Moving from foster home to foster home, Baby becomes adept at thinking logically and remembering details. This translates into an unselfconsciousgift for breathtaking metaphors, perhaps the most mesmerizing aspect of this author's prose. An oddly appealing trip down and then out.
“A vivid portrait of life on skid row.”
five stars OK!
“A poignant tale…. O’Neill brings the setting to life.”
David Rakoff
“A beautiful book, all the more remarkable because its harrowing tale is (virtuosically) told without a trace of self-pity or bathos. There are phrases in here that will make you laugh out loud, and others that will stop your heart. A definite triumph.”
Quill & Quire (Canada)
“A nuanced, endearing coming-of-age novel you won’t want to miss.”
Independent (London)
“Vivid and poignant.... A deeply moving and troubling novel.”
Montreal Review of Books
“O’Neill is a tragicomedienne par excellence…. You will not want to miss this tender depiction of some very mean streets.”
“O’Neill somehow infuses her troubling story with a kind of heartbreaking innocence…. She is a wonderful stylist and the voice she has created for Baby is original and altogether captivating.”
Waterstones Books Quarterly (London)
“Dreamy prose.... Baby’s unique voice and the glimmer of hope provided by her intelligence and imaginative spirit live on in the mind long after you have closed the book.”
“A disturbing, heartbreaking novel… redeemed by a powerful voice, vivid characters and gritty realism. This is a stunning book from a first-time author.”

Product Details

Baker & Taylor, CATS
Publication date:
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Read an Excerpt

Lullabies for Little Criminals

A Novel

By Heather O'Neill

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006

Heather O'Neill

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060875070

Chapter One

Life With Jules

Right before my twelfth birthday, my dad, Jules, and I moved into a two-room apartment in a building that we called the Ostrich Hotel. It was the first time I could remember taking a taxicab anywhere. It let us off in the alley behind the building, where all the walls had pretty graffiti painted on them. There was a cartoon cow with a sad look on its face and a girl with an oxygen mask holding a tiny baby in her arms.

Jules was wearing a fur hat and a long leather jacket. He was all in a hurry to get our stuff out of the taxi because it was so cold. "Stupid, lousy prick of a bastard, it's cold!" Jules screamed. That's the only type of thing anyone could say while outside in that weather. I think he was also in shock that the cabdriver had charged him ten bucks.

Jules took a suitcase filled with his clothes in one hand and a record player that closed into a white suitcase in the other. I was sure that he was going to drop it because he was wearing a pair of leather boots with flat soles that he had fallen madly in love with at the Army surplus store. They didn't have any treads on the bottom, so they gave his feet the funny illusion of moving in all directions at once. He slipped just outside the door of the hotel and had to land on his knees to break his fall.

I hadmy own little vinyl suitcase with green flowers and my name, Baby, written on it with black permanent marker, bulging with my clothes and my homework. I also had a plastic bag filled with dolls that I was dragging on the ground behind me.

There was a glass window over the front door on which were painted gold cursive letters that spelled out L'Hotel Austriche. This of course meant the Austrian Hotel, but Jules wasn't a particularly good reader. There were old-fashioned radiators all along the hallways with designs of roses on them. Jules loved the radiators. He said they were the only things that could keep an apartment warm. You had to stand on a floral carpet and wipe your boots before going up the stairs. Jules had already picked up the keys, so we just ignored the woman sleeping at the desk.

The apartment was small, with a living room and a tiny bedroom for me in the back. Like all the apartments in the hotels on that street, it came furnished. The wallpaper wasn't bad, although it had peeled off in spots near the ceiling. It was blue with tiny black stars on it here and there. The carpet had been worn down so much that you couldn't see what pattern it used to have and the light switch was practically black from so many hands turning it on and off.

It had the same smell of wet clothes and pot that our last apartment had. It smelled as if a florist shop had caught on fire and all the flowers were burning. I didn't mind any apartment so long as there weren't any tiny amber-colored cockroaches that disappeared into holes. Our last apartment was bigger but wouldn't stay warm. The heat from the electric baseboards just made Jules sweat and then get colder.

We had decided to leave abruptly in the end. Jules was nervous about a friend of his named Kent murdering him in his sleep. Kent had gone to Oshawa to work in a ski pole factory for the winter season and had left his two electric guitars, an amp, and a bag of clothes at our apartment in exchange for two cartons of cigarettes. They were reservation cigarettes and they had three feathers on each box. Jules smoked the cigarettes one after the other, as if he had an infinite supply. Even though he said they were like smoking shredded-up tires and chicken bones and they were going to kill him before he turned forty, he chain-smoked them nonetheless.

Jules had a little kid's sense of time and after a month, when all the cigarettes were gone, he didn't seem to believe that Kent was ever going to come back. He sold the equipment for fifty dollars. Two days later, Kent called and left a message saying that he would be coming back into town to pick up his stuff. Jules didn't have any problem-solving skills and he panicked.

"I can't get his shit back! I threw his clothes in the trash."

"What's he going to do?" I yelled, jumping up on the couch, as if I'd seen a mouse.

"Fuck, he'll run me over with his car. All I need is a couple of broken legs. I can barely walk down the street as it is. You know what they call someone who can't walk? An invalid!"

"Can't you buy back his guitars?" I screamed, hopping from foot to foot on the couch cushions.

"They're worth like a thousand dollars. I only got fifty dollars for them. I'll never be able to get them back. What did he expect me to do? Keep his instruments here for the rest of my life? I've already probably got arthritis from stubbing my toes against his shit."

That night I had a dream that a pair of running shoes were following me down the street and I woke up in a cold sweat. I had never met Kent, but Jules got me so worked up about him that I couldn't eat my lunch at school the next day. And that evening, when the doorbell finally did ring, my belly button felt as if it had come unthreaded and had fallen down through the floorboards.

Jules and I sat nervously next to each other on the couch, until we heard the footsteps walk away. Then he jumped up and . . .


Excerpted from Lullabies for Little Criminals
by Heather O'Neill
Copyright © 2006 by Heather O'Neill.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Heather O’Neill is a Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and essayist. Her prize-winning debut novel, Lullabies for Little Criminals, was published in 2006 to international critical acclaim. Her novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, and the short story collection, Daydreams of Angels, were shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in consecutive years. The collection was also shortlisted for the Paragraphe Hugh McLennan Prize for Fiction.

Miriam McDonald is a Canadian actress and voice artist.

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Lullabies for Little Criminals 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In Montreal, Baby is turning twelve shortly. Her mother has been with for quite a while her twenty-seven years old father who is a junkie. They move around a lot from dive hotels to run down apartments to abodes worse than either always in the red light district where Jules seeks easy marks to con. Jules is a schemer, but never succeeds in making money because he usually explodes in a berserker rage when the slightest thing does not go in accordance to his plan, which is often as his heroin dependency rules his logic.-------------- Baby hides as much as possible at the community center or in the apartments of other children especially when her father is raging. Foster care, school and juvenile detention are respites from the violence though none are safe. She knows that charismatic but dangerous pimp Alphonse and kindhearted student Xavier seem to want her though she knows first hand that sex means pain. Soon Baby¿s world will crash further leaving her to make adult decisions that a kid should never have to face.------------ Though depressing to read about a child who never had any opportunity for youthful innocence, LULLABIES FOR LITTLE CRIMINALS is a powerful look at how the young adapt to their changing circumstances. Baby is a terrific protagonist, aptly named, as she endures in an ugly world made nastier by her father¿s needs fueled by heroin. The story line focuses on the little criminal, an offspring of a kid having a kid, doing what she must to endure. Heather O¿Neill writes a compelling character study that showcases a young survivor.------------- Harriet Klausner
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book, the story of the beautiful pre-pubescent Baby and her heroin-addicted father was awesome. Heather O'Neil has a unique way of writing as she tells the adventures of Baby, everything from being in foster care families, to new friends 'and enemies', to discovering the power her beauty holds (grown men think she is sexy even as she walks around in frumpy mis-matched clothes, carrying a sack of dolls). I'm not a great reveiwer, all i can say is i loved this book, i finished it in 2 days, though i tried to stretch it out and enjoy it i just couldn't put it down. I hate when that happens, but love it too cuz that's when you know it's a good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books that depresses you more and more with each page but keeps you interested. Baby is a wonderful character and the writer makes your heart break for her. A tad too much heart break for one child in one book.
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This is my favorite book of all time! Extraordinary!
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A window into a world no one wants to look at.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tough subject that kept getting worse.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A lttle depressing, maybe to far fetched with the down and out. Still makes one wonder if children ever have tjis type of life. Kept me turning pages, felt like i knew Baby.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loves this book I just couldn't put it down each chapter left you wondering and wanting more...Baby is so grown, but so young and innoscent at the same time...I just loved the book all around and read the whole thing in a day I just couldn't put it down..a definate must read
Guest More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved the characters and the way the story was told. This is a great book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
My cousing recommended this book and it is amazing you should read it!!